In the 1951 science fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, an alien in human form visits the planet accompanied by a giant metallic robot and delivers an ultimatum: change your warlike ways or face obliteration. The movie ends with world leaders pondering their choice.
It would be nice to imagine that, like the threat of an alien invasion, the cruel and merciless coronavirus, which is posing the most serious public health threat seen in a century, would bring world leaders to their senses, leading to less competition and more international coordination. But that’s highly unlikely.
Instead, the basic pattern of international relations is unlikely to change for the better. Far from transforming the world, the pandemic may deepen preexisting trends toward a more competitive and less globalized international arena where large and small powers collide more often than they cooperate.
No matter who claims the presidency in 2021, the United States will confront a cruel and unforgiving world: the challenge of spurring a national recovery unlike any since the Great Depression, a virus for which there will likely still be no vaccine, and a deeply polarized nation. What it means to lead abroad may take on an entirely different and much less expansive character. A Joe Biden presidency might succeed in repairing America’s image, restoring its relations with its allies, and even demonstrating leadership on global issues such as climate change and global health. But the tug of U.S. domestic priorities, the presence of regional and international actors determined to protect their space, and intractable global conflicts will significantly limit the reach of the United States in a world hostile to American primacy.
China and Russia: Here to Stay but Not to Run the World
Unless the United States, China, and Russia all make significant policy changes in 2020, a Biden administration is likely to have adversarial relations with both of these strategic rivals. Moscow and Beijing share a multipolar conception of global order with serious constraints on the United States’ capacity to throw around its geopolitical weight in the neighborhoods they regard as their own spheres of interest. Both have thwarted American designs to maintain hegemony in these areas. Both are led by strong and highly nationalistic leaders who have shown they cannot be pushed around and who use U.S. opposition to stoke nationalistic and anti-American feelings that bolster their own legitimacy. Moreover, the “bear hug” between the two countries, as Carnegie scholar Eugene Rumer has observed, will make it more difficult for the United States to shape their policies, let alone bend them to its will.
This is not to say that either country yet poses a serious threat to take over leadership of the fragmenting liberal international order. Beijing’s bullying behavior abroad has made many countries more fearful of China, while its botched handling of the pandemic has inflicted enormous damage on the country’s international standing. Likewise, Russia’s more aggressive global activism—especially its efforts to erode democratic norms and institutions and undermine EU cohesion by stoking populist, nativist, and nationalist sentiments across Europe—have antagonized many countries.
More importantly, neither country seems eager or able to perform the role of global steward. At a minimum, the Chinese government wants the global order—and the rules and institutions that undergird it—to reflect its superpower status and grant it more influence over how the rules are made. The Xi Jinping–led Chinese Communist Party “is nationalist rather than internationalist in outlook,” as one prominent expert on China has noted. “The party sees Washington as an obstacle to its goals of preserving its own rule and gaining regional dominance,” he goes on to say, “but it does not believe that the United States or its system of government has to be defeated in order to achieve these aims.” In contrast, Russian President Vladimir Putin is bent on weakening the West (especially the United States) and undermining democratic forms of government.
Over the next several years, Russia’s and China’s accumulated grievances with the United States—as well as their profound divergences on values and a plethora of security, diplomatic, and economic issues—will all but guarantee a continued strategic rivalry for regional supremacy and global influence. Even so, a new U.S. administration may be able to improve the tone of relations, perhaps even finding common ground on climate change, nonproliferation, or cyber warfare. As Fareed Zakaria has argued, embracing a less confrontational stance toward China, could help the United States avoid the costs and risks of “a treacherous conflict of unknown scale and scope that will inevitably cause decades of instability and insecurity.” By the same token, U.S. willingness to engage with Russia in a comprehensive and sustained dialogue on the range of issues that divide them might start to chip away at the mutual suspicion and mistrust that plague them.
But a major and sustained accommodation is unlikely any time soon, primarily because both Putin and Xi perceive the United States as an aggressive, hostile, and unilateralist nation that threatens their countries’ internal stability and what they regard as their legitimate geopolitical ambitions. China and Russia are not likely to surrender their vital interests, and most of the countries in their immediate neighborhoods have accepted that they are or will soon become the predominant regional powers. Any U.S. move toward reconciliation will also be difficult because the foreign policy establishment and the American public increasingly perceive both Russia and China as not just competitors but enemies. Meanwhile, the U.S. foreign policy debate has been missing a discussion of how the United States should adapt its relationships with both countries to the realities of a multipolar world that imposes greater limitations on the exercise of U.S. power.
Small Tribes, Big Powers
Meanwhile, North Korea and Iran, small- to medium-range powers at best, have also pushed back successfully against the United States and will continue to do so unless Washington changes its approach. Despite U.S. campaigns of “maximum pressure” designed to isolate, punish, and sanction both countries, they are defiantly maintaining policies they consider essential to their security.
North Korea, as UN experts have recently reported, can count on China and Russia to help it evade sanctions and avoid collapse. Washington has no viable military option to disarm North Korea or to topple the regime. Regime change in Iran is equally fabulist thinking. As U.S. officials have noted, sanctions may be forcing Tehran to retrench in Syria, but they will not compel the mullahs to capitulate to U.S. demands; in fact, they have counterproductively strengthened the security establishment’s power.
U.S. diplomatic efforts to resolve outstanding problems with both Iran and North Korea are at a standstill, largely because the United States has made unrealistic, maximalist demands and shown no willingness to compromise. The lesson should be clear: when countries see the United States as an existential threat, survival will always trump economic prosperity.
The United States: Weaker at Home
The pandemic may be the most serious challenge to the world and to the United States since World War II. But unlike that conflict—the only war in U.S. history that made the country stronger at home and abroad—the coronavirus will leave America unquestionably weaker. That’s not to say the United States, resilient as it is, cannot recover. But that process will be gradual and painful. In addition to highlighting serious class and racial divisions and inequalities, the pandemic—made worse by President Donald Trump’s lack of leadership and disdain for science and expertise—has laid bare the nation’s unpreparedness, poorly stocked and thinly resourced public health system, and lack of trust in the government to make appropriately targeted interventions.
Unemployment has reached Depression-era levels, retail sales took their steepest drop on record, and how and when consumer confidence will recover is completely unclear. Estimates suggest the U.S. economy will contract by as much as 14 percent this year alone, putting the country’s share of public debt to GDP at nearly 100 percent, as Kevin Rudd has pointed out. A giant deficit may be precisely what’s called for in a crisis. But it could also impede postpandemic recovery—risking higher taxes and lower future incomes and, as The New York Times put it, imperiling the American dream for “children to climb past their parents on the economic ladder.”
A Biden administration would inherit the urgent domestic challenges exposed by the pandemic, which have created pressure for a much more ambitious and transformative agenda for the nation. Governing is really about choosing. How much time will the next president, preoccupied with the unprecedented challenge of national recovery, be willing and able to devote to international affairs? And what kind of resources will be available in a financially straitened and increasingly polarized country already inclined to question the value of projecting its economic and military might abroad?
How Will the United States Lead?
A leader without followers, the old saying goes, is someone just out for a walk. Based on the Trump administration’s self-centered approach to leading, few allies, let alone adversaries, are likely to follow. Rarely since 1945 has the United States been missing in action during a global crisis as much as it has during the coronavirus pandemic.
A president of a more internationalist bent, instead of one tethered to America First retrenchment, might repair much of the damage and restore a measure of U.S. leadership. Biden has said that, if elected, he would be on the phone with allies around the world reestablishing relations and making clear that the country is back on track.
But as Biden surely knows, leading abroad involves much more than making phone calls. It requires a strategy, a smart and effective way of balancing means and ends, achievable goals, and—perhaps more than anything else—opportunities to exploit and partners to work with.
That may not be the kind of world Biden will inherit. If a Biden administration wants agreements and accommodations with U.S. adversaries like Iran, it will need to make painful choices of its own and recognize that these rivals have interests, too. As far as the world’s most intractable conflicts are concerned—from Kashmir and Syria to Israel-Palestine, Libya, Ukraine, and Yemen—none seem to offer many opportunities to even the most talented secretary of state.
Quite appropriately, a new administration would likely focus first on low-hanging fruit: restoring relations and refurbishing traditional alliances; making greater use of multilateral diplomacy; energizing the U.S. role in the G7 and G20, perhaps with an emphasis on global economic reform; rejoining the Paris climate accord; testing the possibility of extending New START with Russia; pursuing a more conciliatory approach toward Cuba; and reinjecting into U.S. foreign policy the support for democratic values and human rights that Trump has largely disregarded, perhaps through a convocation of the world’s democracies.
None of these aspirations are terribly revolutionary or heroic. But they are necessary. And that is both right and good, primarily because it’s an approach in line with domestic and global realities. Long gone are the days of an indispensable United States ready to rise to any challenge and tethered to a vision of primacy, dominance, and Pax Americana. The United States can still be a force for good and positive change in the world. But in the wise words of Charles Kupchan, it’s “no one’s world.” The United States will need to redefine its place, striving for a wise and effective foreign policy that balances the risks of doing too much abroad and doing too little.